Attacks on the Press   |   Afghanistan, France, Qatar

Attacks on the Press 2001: Palestinian Authority Territories

As the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, entered its second year, Palestinian National Authority (PNA) chairman Yasser Arafat appeared to be fighting for his own survival amidst escalating Israeli military attacks and intense diplomatic pressure from the United States. Despite the PNA's precarious situation and increasing alienation from the population at large, the PNA showed that it was still capable of cracking down on press freedom in 2001.

In March, PNA security forces closed the Ramallah office of the popular, Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera for three days because it had broadcast an unflattering image of Arafat. Al-Jazeera has become popular among Palestinians for its coverage of the intifada, and the shutdown triggered widespread local and international protest. The station was allowed to reopen three days later.

In the aftermath of September 11, Palestinian security forces prevented several journalists from covering celebrations among Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus of the attacks on the United States. In one well-publicized incident, a PNA official told an Associated Press (AP) cameraman that his safety could not be guaranteed if footage of the rallies was aired. Fearing for the cameraman's safety, AP elected not to broadcast the images.

In October, security forces barred foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip in an apparent effort to prevent them from covering the aftermath of bloody clashes between Palestinian security forces and Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza City. The demonstrators were protesting U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan, and some expressed support for Osama bin Laden. A few days later, a number of journalists were prevented from covering another protest in a Gaza refugee camp.

Security forces continued to operate outside the law by censoring, intimidating, physically abusing, and arbitrarily arresting journalists from local print and broadcast media outlets.

The PNA's heavy-handed and arbitrary treatment of journalists has fostered an oppressive climate of self-censorship in the Palestinian press. In 2001, local newspapers continued to avoid coverage of issues such as PNA corruption and mismanagement, human rights abuses by security forces, or any issue that might reflect negatively on Arafat. Palestinian journalists continued to complain in private about their inability to print dissenting viewpoints in the mainstream press and about the lack of investigative reporting on Palestinian affairs.

The three major Palestinian dailies maintain close ties with the PNA. Arafat aide Akram Haniyya edits the daily Al-Ayyam, while Nabil Amr, another Arafat confidant, founded the daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida. In addition, the PNA covers the payroll of the latter. The privately owned Al-Quds is nominally independent but remains staunchly pro-PNA. The continuation of the intifada seemed to make journalists even more reluctant to criticize the PNA or its leadership.

Under intense U.S. and Israeli pressure to crack down on extremists who carried out a number of deadly suicide bombings against Israelis during the year, the PNA in December closed a number of offices of the radical groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Islamist weeklies Al-Risala and Al-Istiqlal, Gaza-based publications affiliated with the Khalas Party (comprising former Hamas members) and the Islamic Jihad, were shut down in the process.

The PNA controls the official Palestine TV and the Voice of Palestine radio, both of which are PNA mouthpieces. However, a range of private radio and television stations sprang up across the West Bank in the 1990s, providing local news, debates, at times during the current intifada, important information about services, such as economic aid and counseling, that are available to beleaguered Palestinians.

But broadcast outlets remain vulnerable to PNA reprisals. On September 20, PNA security forces temporarily closed Al Roa TV, a private television station in the West Bank town of Bethlehem that had broadcast a statement from a militant group affiliated with Arafat's Fatah organization claiming responsibility for an attack on two Jewish settlers. The news apparently embarrassed the PNA since it suggested that a group technically under Arafat's control might have violated a recently announced Palestinian cease fire.

Citing safety concerns, fewer Israeli journalists ventured into the Palestinian-controlled territories during the intifada. In February, a Fatah leaflet, published in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, warned that Israelis entering Bethlehem, including journalists, could be killed. The threat followed an Israel Radio report on the allegedly corrupt activities of a Fatah official. Palestinian West Bank security chief Col. Jibril Rajoub told the Jerusalem Post that the threats were irresponsible and did not reflect the PNA's position. Nevertheless, Fatah activists once again threatened Israeli journalists a month later, according to reports on Israel radio.

In late May, Palestinian militants detained two Western journalists working with Newsweek magazine in the Gaza Strip. The militants claimed to be members of the Fatah Hawks, an organization that was thought to be defunct. They announced that the journalists were being detained "to protest unfair American and British press coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The journalists, who were allowed to leave unharmed after four-and-a-half hours, said they never felt seriously threatened. (See also "Israel and the Occupied Territories," page 480.)


January 16

Majdi al-Arbid, free-lancer
LEGAL ACTION

Al-Arbid, a free-lance cameraman and the owner of a private production company in the Gaza Strip, was detained by the Preventive Security Services of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Gaza in connection with video footage of the PNA's execution of a Palestinian accused of collaborating with Israel.

The PNA was apparently angered that the execution had aired on Israel's Channel 2. Only a few PNA-sanctioned journalists were allowed to cover the execution, and al-Arbid was not among them. PNA officials suspected that whoever shot the footage then gave it to al-Arbid, who passed it to Channel 2.

Al-Arbid was released on January 23, after eight days in detention.

February 8

Al-Hayat al-Jadida
ATTACKED

The offices of the official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida, located in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh, were hit during a barrage of gunfire that lasted from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. No one was injured, but windows in the front of the building were heavily damaged. The staff took cover in the basement during the shooting.

According to staff, the shots came from the direction of the Israeli army base on Jabal al-Tawil, near the Jewish settlement of Pisgaout.

February 15

Nablus TV
ATTACKED

A transmission tower of the private television station Nablus TV was damaged by Israeli gunfire during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus. The tower was perched atop a residential building that was hit by the Israeli fire.

Ayman al-Nimer, technical director of the station, said that because of the destruction, about 40 percent of the station's viewers could not watch the channel. Israeli fire had also knocked out the station's transmission in January, stopping all broadcasts for 20 days.

Nimer told CPJ that he could not confirm that the station was targeted, but the fact that the transmission tower has been hit twice within a short period of time raises questions about the Israel Defense Forces' intentions.

March 21

Al-Jazeera
CENSORED

Palestinian National Authority (PNA) security forces, acting on orders from President Yasser Arafat's office, closed the Ramallah bureau of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel and barred its staff from entering the premises. The move apparently resulted from an Al-Jazeera promotional trailer that advertised a forthcoming episode in a documentary series about the Lebanese civil war. The trailer showed a demonstrator holding a pair of shoes over a photo of Arafat.

On March 19, PNA security authorities contacted the bureau to demand that Al-Jazeera withdraw the trailer within two hours or else face closure. Shortly thereafter, security officials visited the bureau and told staff that their office was closed indefinitely. On March 21, Palestinian security forces took up positions in front of the bureau and prevented staff from entering.

CPJ protested the incident in a March 22 letter to Arafat.

On March 23, following international condemnation and the intervention of several high-profile Palestinian figures, Arafat allowed Al-Jazeera's bureau to reopen.

May 29

Joshua Hammer, Newsweek
HARASSED
Gary Knight, Newsweek
HARASSED

Hammer, the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, and Knight, a photographer on assignment with the publication, were detained by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The two were interviewing Palestinian militants in the town of Rafah who claimed to be members of the Fatah Hawks, an organization that Palestinian National Authority officials claim no longer exists.

During the interview, the militants informed the two journalists that they were being detained "to protest unfair American and British press coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," according to Newsweek. The journalists' driver and translator were also detained.

In a statement, the militants said: "This operation comes as a message to the U.S. and British governments to reconsider their calculations and that all their citizens in Palestine and the Arab world will be subject to abduction and killing in case the full, biased and unjustified support continues to the government [of Israel]."

The journalists were allowed to leave unharmed after four and a half hours. They said they did not feel threatened, Newsweek reported. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials denied any involvement in the incident.

In a May 31 alert about the case, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper expressed relief that the two men were freed unharmed. Nonetheless, the incident was "a worrying threat to working journalists," she said.

She asked the Palestinian National Authority to "demonstrate that it will not tolerate abuses of press freedom in Palestinian territory."

July 29

Sakher Abu al-Aoun, Agence France-Presse
ATTACKED

Abu al-Aoun, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) in the Gaza Strip, was beaten by five assailants armed with pipes as he made his way to AFP's offices. He suffered a concussion.

In a letter to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, AFP said the incident was "particularly alarming because the assailants...clearly said they knew Sakher was a journalist."

AFP quoted Palestinian Authority secretary general Ahmed Abdulrahman as saying that the attacks against Abu al-Aoun were probably connected with a report the journalist filed about bloody clashes involving two feuding families in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza.

July 31

Muhammad al-Bishawi, Najah Press Office, IslamOnline.net
KILLED

Al-Bishawi, a reporter for the Nablus-based Palestinian news service Najah Press Office and for IslamOnline.net, an Internet news service based in Qatar, was killed in an Israeli missile attack that had targeted Hamas leader Jamal Mansour. Israel had accused Mansour of masterminding several suicide bombings.

Various sources, including al-Bishawi's Cairo-based editor, reported that at the time of the attack, al-Bishawi was in the Palestinian Center for Studies and Media, a Hamas information office, to interview Mansour for an article he was writing for IslamOnline.net.

Al-Bishawi covered many topics for IslamOnline.net, ranging from Palestinian weddings to suicide bombers.

September 11

Several journalists
THREATENED, HARASSED

According to international press reports, Palestinian police and armed gunmen prevented several news photographers and cameramen from documenting events in the West Bank city of Nablus, where groups of Palestinians celebrated the terrorist attacks on the United States by honking horns and firing live ammunition rounds into the air.

According to The Associated Press, Palestinian security authorities summoned a free-lance cameraman working for the AP that same day and warned him not to air his footage of the events. Members of the Tanzim militia, affiliated with the Fatah organization, also issued warnings that the AP cameraman interpreted as threatening.

Later, the AP quoted Palestinian National Authority (PNA) cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman as saying that the PNA "[could] not guarantee the life" of the AP cameraman if the film were broadcast. In the end, the footage was not aired, apparently out of concern for the journalist's safety.

Three days later, on September 14, Palestinian police briefly detained several photographers and cameramen working with international news agencies in the Gaza Strip and confiscated their equipment. The journalists had been covering a rally to commemorate a Palestinian suicide bomber that the militant Islamic group Hamas staged in the Nusseirat refugee camp.

During the rally, one protester reportedly held up a portrait of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi financier suspected by the United States of orchestrating the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Palestinian police later stated that they "confiscated media material which documented illegal acts" at an illegal rally.

Although the PNA returned the journalists' camera equipment that weekend, some of their video footage had been erased. The AP reported that its video was missing 45 seconds of footage. Another photographer told CPJ that images stored on his digital camera had been erased.

CPJ protested the measures in a September 17 letter to Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

September 20

Al-Roa TV
CENSORED

At about 11:00 a.m., Palestinian police and security agents descended on the offices of the private television station Al-Roa TV and ordered the station to cease broadcasting immediately.

No reason was given for the suspension, and the officers failed to provide station staff with any official documentation to justify the raid. Station director Hamdi Faraj eventually received a document from the local police stating that the station had been closed by order of Hadj Ismail Jaber, general director of the Palestinian military and police forces in the West Bank.

Staff at Al-Roa told CPJ that they believe the closure came in reprisal for a news bulletin aired earlier in the day. The bulletin announced that Al-Roa had received a statement from the Al-Aqsa Brigades, a group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, claiming responsibility for an attack on two Jewish settlers in the West bank, which resulted in the death of one settler.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was evidently embarassed by Al-Roa's bulletin, which suggested that a group technically under Arafat's control might have violated the recently announced Palestinian cease-fire.

By Al Roa's own count, it was the 10th time PNA authorities had closed the station since it was founded in the early 1990s.

CPJ condemned the closure in a September 20 alert. Two days later, on September 22, authorities allowed the station to resume broadcasting.

October 9

All media
HARASSED

Palestinian authorities barred foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip and prevented other reporters from reaching the scene of bloody clashes between Palestinian protesters and Palestinian police that resulted in the deaths of two protesters and the injuries of dozens more a day earlier. The ban remained in effect for one and a half days.

The demonstrators were protesting U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan. Some of the protesters expressed support for Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

On October 8, Palestinian authorities banned some foreign reporters from entering Gaza and prevented others from reaching the scene of clashes. At least two journalists who did manage to cover the clashes were attacked by Palestinian police and later detained for several hours.

For security reasons, the journalists involved in this incident asked that their names and affiliations not be revealed to the public.

October 12

All media
HARASSED

Palestinian security forces barred journalists from entering the Meghazi refugee camp in Gaza, where the militant Islamic Jihad organization was staging a memorial service for a group member who had been murdered. Media outlets received the order via fax from Police Chief Ghazi Jabali.

October 12

Alaa Saftawi, Al-Istiqlal
IMPRISONED

Palestinian security forces arrested Saftawi, publisher of the militant Islamic Jihad weekly Al-Istiqlal, over an article criticizing the Palestinian National Authority's crackdown on demonstrators in Gaza.

He was released without charge on November 16.

December 13

Voice of Palestine
ATTACKED

Israeli missiles hit the Voice of Palestine radio station broadcasting headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, according to international news reports. The building's main transmitter was destroyed, knocking the station off the air.

Later, bulldozers flattened the building while Israeli soldiers detonated explosives that toppled a 90-foot radio and television tower and destroyed the station's transmitter, which is also used by Palestine TV.

Voice of Palestine went back on the air using another frequency. Palestine TV reportedly broadcast with poor reception.

The attack came amid Israeli military strikes against Palestinian National Authority targets in what Israel described as reprisals for recent deadly suicide bombings and shootings carried out by radical Palestinian groups. Israel holds Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responsible for the violence.

"We are appalled by Israel's military action against the Voice of Palestine," said CPJ's executive director Ann Cooper in a statement. "As civilian facilities, radio and television stations are protected from military attack under international humanitarian law. CPJ calls on Israeli authorities to cease attacking the media immediately."

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